¡Salsa Fresca!

This just in!

Hey Eben and Monica,

OK, the tomatoes are now coming in faster than anyone wants to eat sliced, fresh tomatoes, and the time of salsa and stewed tomatoes is upon us.

I have made salsa a few times, but never really settled on a recipe. It has been good, but not great, and I’d like to take it up a notch. I also would like to make at least one big batch of real “chipotle” salsa with roasted __________ (peppers? jalapenos? tomatoes? what do I roast?) And how do I roast? On a gas grill, or in a gas oven (my only two available options, unless I start a fire in the guitar shop.) I have 4 kinds of tomatoes: Sungold Cherry (good for a sweet salsa?), Italian Plum, Oregon Spring medium big, red, slicing tomato, and an heirloom called Pruden’s Purple. I have mucho Jalapenos, plus several varieties of sweet peppers (Ace, Lipstick, Carmen, Banana.) Our Cilantro is at the coriander stage, so that will need to be purchased. I’ll also buy onions, as ours are small and probably too mild for good salsa zing.

When talking salsa recipes, one has to put their cards on the table about just how hot is hot enough. For me personally, I have had some changes to my innards, where my tongue can handle a lot hotter than my stomach and intestines, so if you would be so kind, please offer a variation on salsa recipe(s) that are closer to commercial “medium” than “hot.” I know I lose macho points for that, but physiological reality is reality.

Thanks!

Dennis

Oh it will absolutely be our pleasure, D-Man!! Salsa runs like water at our house; we always have several varieties working, as any self-respecting Tejano should! We’ll divide the subject broadly into fresh and cooked salsas and go from there.

Basic considerations for salsas are very loose; use whatever variety of tomato floats your boat; sweet, savory, peppery, any and every note can and will do nicely. Sweet onions are better than hot or too peppery; there are plenty of other flavor notes to pick up other than hot onions. Fresh cilantro is a must; if you don’t have it, don’t add it.

Now, let us address heat right up front. When it comes to using chiles, do use your imagination, but as Dennis alluded to in his request, in general it’s best to make things cooler than you might like if you’re a real ChileHead: If you’re making something to feed others, you really should make the heat level lowest common denominator. I don’t mean don’t have any heat in a salsa,, because to me, that’s just tomato sauce; I do mean build something reasonable that most folks can handle, and then add a side dish of fresh chopped chiles for your fellow ChileHeads to add as they see fit. As some of you know, I dig heat big time; that said, when we do salsa for others, we use one cored and seeded mild jalapeño for the chile and that’s it…

OK, let’s do the fresh stuff first; literally translated, Pico de Gallo means ‘Roosters Beak’ and maybe for that reason is also sometimes called Salsa Fresca. Pico is our personal favorite manifestation of the art. The essence of it is simply tomato and onion, though for our minds, you must have cilantro and chile as well. Pico lends itself to many, many things, from simple munching with chips, to a scoop on soup or stew or damn near anything else from eggs to enchiladas. Here’s the basic recipe we work from:

Classic Pico de Gallo

4 tomatoes of your choice, cored, seeded and diced
1 sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
1-3 chiles of your choice, cored, seeded and fine diced.
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Note: You might look at the recipe above and ask, “Sugar? huh?!” Well, in pico especially, salt and/or sugar can and will bring out flavor balances, so experiment and use them as you see fit.

Options:
MANY, is the bottom line. Add FRESH lime, lemon, orange, or grapefruit juice to add a great citrus note to the flavor. Juice a tomato and add that. Garlic, dill, shallot, annatto, chipotle, smoked paprika, smoked cherries, smoked salt, smoked pepper seed – Get the picture? Experiment and see what floats your boat!

Picante:
A lot of folks have asked about the difference between a pico style salsa and a picante style salsa; it’s a great question, not a dumb one! To us down here, pico is the raw, mixed veggie salsa with a minimal juice or sauce component, while picante is a salsa that is predominantly sauce-based. If you think of restaurant salsa, it is much more often picante style than pico. That said, there’s a broad assumption that picante style salsas are always cooked, and I’m here to say that it ain’t necessarily so; to me, the freshest and best picantes are NOT cooked, but that’s just me – You do what floats your boat, right? Right! One general note, the components of picante should be a finer dice/mince than pico; it’s just a bit more blended/refined…

Fresh Salsa Picante

4 tomatoes of your choice
1 onion, skinned and minced
¼ cup minced cilantro
2-3 chiles of your choice, seeded, cored and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, and cumin to taste.

Blanche your tomatoes; peel them all after blanching.
Take 3 of your ‘maters and put ‘em in a blender, processor, or have at ‘em with a boat motor until they are thoroughly liquefied. Add salt, pepper, garlic and cumin to taste to this liquid and set aside.

Dice your remaining tomatoes, and combine with onion, cilantro, and chiles. Add your liquid component and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust spicing as needed. Refrigerate and allow to chill and blend for at least an hour prior to serving.

Cooked Salsas:
The primary delights of cooked salsa are twofold; one, you get a blending and sophistication of flavor that is not always found in a fresh salsa, and two, you get longevity, which is very good when winter days grow shorter, eh? That said, cooking a salsa also allows you to add subtlety of flavor that may not always fly in a fresh product, so feel free to think outside the box in this regard!

For recipe considerations, I offer the following:

Classic Red Salsa

10 -12 tomatoes of your choice
1-2 med onion, diced.
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 chiles, your choice, blanched, stemmed, veined and seeded.
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch half your tomatoes, then peel and blend, puree or motorboat to a nice, even consistency. Put that mix into a sauce pan over medium heat.
Add oil to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onion and chiles and sauté for a couple minutes. Remove from heat and garlic and allow to sauté for another minute or two.
Combine sauted veggies, the rest of your tomatoes, Cored, seeded and diced), the cilantro, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for about an hour. Remove from heat and place into a non-reactive container to cool. Will last several days refrigerated, also can be canned, of course!

Salsa Verde

10-12 tomatillos, husks removed, of course…
1-2 small sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 green chiles of your choice, (Anaheim or Hatch are nice), diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste.

Employ the exact same process as for the red salsa above and you’re good to go!

Smokin!
First and foremost is Dennis’ question above; how about chipotle? Yeah, buddy! Like I said above, we love jalapeños and eat ‘em like candy; we love chipotle just as much, you see, ‘cause they ain’t nothin’ more than a
dried and/or smoked jalapeño, and that’s a fact! Smoking or roasting your own chiles will get just the right note you want.

I take my chiles and roast them on the grill as my go-to method; just layer chiles on the grates and let ‘em have it until the skins are black and blistered. Remove them and allow to cool. You can skin, stem and seed then and further process for freezing or canning, or simply bag ‘em up, suck the air out and freeze ‘em right like that; all those options will work great and give a very nice flavor.

If you have a smoker, put a nice even layer of whole chiles under moderately low heat smoke, (Under 200 degrees for me) for 20 to 60 minutes depending on the level of smoky you want. I’ve smoked already roasted chiles and fresh ones; they all come out nicely. If I’m going to use the dehydrator and completely dry the peppers after smoking, I use fresh; if I’m gonna can or freeze, I usually roast lightly first, then smoke.

Fully dried, smoked jalapeños processed in your spice blender, (AKA a second, cheap coffee bean grinder), makes chipotle flake and powder, with which you can do SO much! For salsa, add your smoked peppers in lieu or in combination with fresh chiles to get the level of smokiness and flavor you like; that usually means making several batches to find just the right blend – Darn…

As for canning, while many have hot water processed salsa and done OK, I have to say that I prefer and advise pressure canning for all salsas; because of that, cooked salsas lend themselves much better to the process than fresh do, so keep that in mind as you haul out the canning gear this fall.

So there ya go, D-Man, did I cover everything?

Good, Better, Best

OK so, let’s generalize about eating veggies. We’ve covered some specific eats and styles of cooking, but big picture, what to do? Here’s a few thoughts.

Crudité:
AKA, fancy French word for raw! Raw veggies are wonderful, and there’re few better methods to get great flavor from them: Crudité veggies are usually prepped and cut to bite size, which is nice for your diners, given the robust textures involved. While crudité veggies are usually done as an appetizer, they needn’t be held to just that: If you’re doing a multi-course meal, consider a crudité course between others as a nice palette cleanser. You can certainly add raw veggies to a main course or salad as well. A crudité course typically involves something to dip the veggies in, like a nice olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or a vinaigrette; even super simple things like butter and good salt with fresh radishes is a real treat.

Steaming:
A lot of veggies will turn out grandly if steamed, but not that many folks do it – I’m not sure why, maybe we feel we need special equipment, etc… Truth be told, a steaming basket does do a better job and if you’re truly gonna steam, ya kinda need one: See, to do this correctly, you need a little boiling water turning to steam beneath your veggies, with the rising, moist heat doing the cooking. If your veggies are sitting in boiling water, well, you’re not steaming, OK? Obvious choices to best benefit from this method include sugar snap peas, carrots, artichokes, asparagus, quartered onion or cabbage, and…

Boiling:
Well, let’s face it, boiling is kinda crude in the big picture of things: If you’re preparing nice, delicate, flavorful veggies, why boil ‘em to death if you have options? Answer, don’t, just do the ones that need or want this method. Truth be told, I can’t think of many things other than spuds that really want to be boiled… Yams, maybe turnips… I just can’t think of much more, and truth be told again, most of these will taste, look, and feel better with other methods, such as…

Roasting:
Roasting is cooking with dry heat, which might sound an awful lot like baking because… It is. Either method speaks of cooking with dry heat, with maybe a small amount of fat or liquid; baking usually refers to breads and baked goods, while roasting speaks to eat, fish, poultry, etc. For veggies, roasting is best done in an open pan, (We like glass and stone a lot, but metal’s fine if that’s what you’ve got). Dang near any veggie you want to cook will love being roasted and will reward you with depth and intensity of flavors that’ll knock your socks off. From potatoes to tomatoes and everything in between, try it, you’ll like it. Love asparagus or artichoke steamed? Try ‘em roasted with a drizzle of good olive oil and salt. Roast disparate veggies, (i.e. those that cook at different times), together by varying the cut you use to prepare each veg; for example, cut potatoes and carrots relatively small, while leaving celery, onion and tomato bigger – Balance things right and they all get done at the same time and are juuuuuust right! Roasting absolutely begs for flavor, so indulge, but conservatively – Apply my Golden Rule of Three, (No more than 3 spices, major flavor notes, etc), and have some fun: Olive oil, salt and Oregano; Garlic, lime, dill; thyme, chive, and balsamic vinegar; Salt, Pepper, and Rosemary – get the picture?

Braising:
Brai… huh?! Oh, trust me, if you don’t know braising, you wanna, for real! Braising means browning food in a fat, and then slow cooking it in a covered, liquid filled container. Do veggies dig this? Is the Pope Austrian? YES!! What are we talking about here? OK, demo time – how about killer root veggies for a nice treat? take potatoes, carrots and beets, cut ‘em into roughly bite sized pieces, and then heat a sauté pan to high with good olive oil in it. Brown the root veggies evenly, then put them in a casserole pan and cover with a bottle of good dark beer, like a Porter or Stout of your choice. Add garlic, salt, pepper, and a shot of Tabasco, and let that mix simmer until the veggies are fork tender, then serve with… Get the picture?

Anyway, there ain’t much right and wrong, just what you like, what you don’t, and what you ain’t tried yet – So try something here you’ve not, and let me know whatcha think!

Molcajete Madness

This just in:

Well, I’m not actually asking about pesto, I’m asking about the molcajete. I found that many people were disappointed with trying to season theirs; maybe an inferior product that just gave up grit forever, maybe just for decoration? I’d have to buy one online (not too many molcajete stores around here)–so what do I look for and how do I season it?

Thanks for the great posts.
Chris

Always a pleasure, Chris!

Well, first and foremost, unless you’re in a big cosmopolitan city, you DO need to buy online. I did, mostly because that’s a ton easier and more efficient than traipsing all over Fo’t Wuth!

Secondly, know that molcajetes are made from dang near every kind of stone you can name, and they are not all created equally: If it’s real cheap and/or too good to be true, then it probably is: Safe to say that the cheaper rocks are more prone to never ending grit sloughing off, which we most certainly do not want. The best stuff, (So say my Mexican friends), is granite or basalt with a relatively low sand content. I bought a Granite model, made by Vasconia and sold through Amazon; I couldn’t be happier with this guy; it has a great texture, is very sturdy, and cost about $30, which is right in the wheelhouse for decent stuff.

Now, as for the seasoning issue; a good molcajete will shed a bit of grit, because it is what it is, stone being ground with stone. A lousy one will shed lots and never stop, regardless of what you do; bottom line, avoid cheap, no-name stuff, ‘cause that is, as you noted, just for looks at best… That said, just like a good cast iron pan, seasoning a molcajete takes a loooooong time; this is why both tools are passed down through generations.

In any case, ya gotta start somewhere, so here’s what you do.

1. Immerse your new cool tool in water for 3 or 4 hours.
2. Pull ‘er out and let ‘er dry thoroughly.
3. Put ¼ cup of rice in the beast and grind until the rice is a molcajete-colored powder; stop when you get there and clear the rice dust out.
4. Combine a tablespoon each of garlic, rock salt, cumin and cilantro; grind all that into the molcajete and coat it thoroughly with the paste. Let that stuff sit in the molcajete for 6 to 8 hours in the fridge, then clean it out under cool running water.
5. Now go to town on your favorite recipe; if you got a good tool, you will not be eating grit and things are good to go. The rest of the seasoning happens over the weeks, months and years…

So, get out there and get you one, y’all!

Pesto Power

Pesto Power

This just in! Hey E, you got a recipe for pesto to die for, (or kill for – that is, cut down the basil plants)?

OK, wrinkle: how about vegan, i.e. minus the Parmesan?

And, further from tradition, but more in line with folks that just can’t afford $30 a pound pine nuts, how about with walnuts?

My pleasure, buddy; this one’s right in my wheelhouse! When it comes to delicious, nothin’ tops simple and good; like a stripped down tomato sauce from primo fruit, a basic basil pesto is hard to beat. Keep in mind that ‘pesto’ stems from the verb pestâ, to pound, hence pesto can be made from many things other than basil. That said, ya gotta start somewhere and basil pesto is that place!

Classic Basil Pesto
1 well-packed cup of fresh basil leaves
¼ cup Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, fine grated
3 or 5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 small garlic clove, fine diced
Salt to taste

Basil requires gentle handling; it doesn’t care for being doused, so don’t if you don’t need to. Inspect your basil and brush clean of dirt, etc.

In a sauté pan on medium heat, toast pine nuts until they just start to turn golden brown. Don’t walk away during the process; nothing burns faster than nuts!

I use a molcajete for grinding stuff in lieu of a standard mortar and pestle; I like the rough granite texture and find that it gets ingredients to the consistency I like faster and more uniformly than any other hand grinder. Just as guacamole really needs to be made by hand in a molcajete to taste right, so pesto must be ground by hand!

Put basil, toasted nuts, and garlic into your molcajete and gently but firmly grind the ingredients against the wall of the vessel until you get a nice, uniform paste.

Add grated cheese and combine with a fork or spoon.

Add olive oil 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach the consistency you like; a little more or less is fine, do it the way you wanna eat it!

Add a little salt just to brighten and raise flavors and blend, not to make it salty!

Serve pesto right away, mixed with pasta of your choice, (It’s great with angel hair, or with tortellini, etc.

Recipe makes about a cup of finished pesto.

Options:
In keeping with Dennis’ request, a vegan alternative to traditional pesto, aka, a no-cheese version: I’d say a few tablespoons of miso would get you to a very decent alternative!

Now, once again, almost anything goes with a pesto; your main criteria are tastes you like and ingredients that will bind and stay together for service. You can use any nut or cheese you like, and I’d substitute at the same volume as the original recipe calls for.

I’ve done a mint/pecan/feta version that was fantastic, as a for instance. Also, sun dried tomato pesto is spectacular and a real treat; I’ve done that with fresh, (Soft), mozzarella with great success as well.

Bottom line, experiment in small batches and have some fun!

Das Spaetzle

Reading the paper this morning, I saw an article on a local restaurant serving Pan Roasted Halibut with Dijon Spaetzle; I pretty much started drooling right off the bat… I was drinking coffee, hadn’t had breakfast, and didn’t have any Halibut, but I sure do have the basics for Spaetzle: There was no recipe in the article, but being a savory breakfast guy, I knew I could figure that one out and do it up, so I did, and here it is.

Spaetzle means “little sparrow,” in German, which I guess is a take on the shape or size or… I dunno, anyway, I love it and hadn’t made or had it in years. Spaetzle is basically a little noodle that is most commonly served as a side, like spuds, but you can do all kinds of things to it, since its basic dough just begging for inspiration. They go great as a bed for something wonderful, (Like the article noted), or as a side; only limit is your imagination and larder.

My version came out great, so I’ll lay it on ya here. I think Spaetzle screams for cheese, personally; most of the German cheeses are white and lean toward the Swiss than cheddar, etc. I made some Queso Blanco last night, and decided to try that with these guys; they paired up wonderfully! ( I re-posted the queso recipe below as well.)
Note on the chives; I used ’em because we grow ’em and I love ’em, but you could use anything that pairs well with mustard; Rosemary, Shallot…

Dijon Spaetzle

4 large eggs
¾ cup whole milk
2 cups all purpose flour, (Not self-rising!)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chives, minced
Salt and Pepper to taste

Salt a pot of water until it tastes salty, (Kinda sea waterish) and bring to a boil.

Combine eggs, milk, mustard and chives and beat well. Add flour slowly but surely until you end up with a sticky batter, (More toward the pancake side than the dough side).

Spoon about half the batter into a sieve or colander with roughly ¼” holes. Take that to your pot of boiling water, take a spatula or pastry knife and gently scrape the batter through the holes.

Allow Spaetzle to boil for about 2 minutes, until it’s just al dente; remove from the water onto a clean plate.

Melt your butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss in your Spaetzle and stir constantly so they butter thoroughly coats the noodles, and you just start to get a bit of golden brown in them.

Transfer Spaetzle to a serving plate, add salt and pepper and garnish with fresh parsley.

Queso Blanco:

One gallon whole milk
1/2 cup lime juice
Salt to taste

Heat the milk in a non-aluminum pot on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until it looks like it’s just about to boil (DON’T let it boil!); temperature should be 185 degrees.

Add lime juice. The curds will separate from the whey and the mixture will look grainy, kind of like you’ve just thrown a bunch of corn meal into a pot of skim milk. Simmer for a few minutes.

Pour contents into a cheesecloth-lined colander and let it drain thoroughly: To save the whey to make ricotta, put the colander over a pot.

Sprinkle the curds with salt; go saltier than you normally would; the salt will drain from the cheese as it dries. Now is the time to add any herbs, spices or chopped chiles if you like.

Gather the curds in the center of the cheesecloth and tie the ends; hang the cloth on the faucet to drain for a few hours, (At least four hours, overnight is better.

Refrigerated, it keeps about the same as fresh milk.

Viva Tomate!

This just in: “Tomatoes are coming! You’ve written a lot about preserving, so how about some of your favorite fresh dishes as well as a thought or two on preserving tomatoes?”

It will be my great pleasure! I walked the tomatoes at Neighborhood Gardeners with Grant, and the smell is still fresh in my mind; to me, there’s nothing like the aroma of growing tomatoes that says ‘garden’ more. I envy y’all the amazing varieties you’re gonna enjoy, especially among the heirloom stuff that you’ll simply never, ever see in a store.

OK, so fresh stuff first:

With beautiful heirloom ‘maters, (Southern for Tomato…), you’ve simply got to do a dish or two that lets the fruit speak; here’s another fantastic amuse bouche.

Simply take a tomato or two of your favorite variety, slice them about ¼” thick, arrange on a plate, season with a little sea salt and a light drizzle of olive oil, and that is that – You don’t need anything more and this way, you really get to enjoy the depth and character of a truly good tomato!

Next comes sauce, because you simply must do this as well. This version is a take on a classic Pomarola, (Known over here as Marinara, this is how to really do it; nothing like the commercial crap out there…) There are a bunch of varieties, this is my take on a Sicilian style.


Salsa alla Pomarola

1 lb of tomatoes, blanched, cored, peeled and rough chopped (About ¾”)
4 or 5 sun dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil, (See below and make your own!)
5 or 6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, fine diced
1 celery stalk, fine diced
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves

Sauté garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil until carrots are fork tender.
Add tomatoes, ½ cup white wine, 3 tblspns of olive oil and bring to a simmer.
Fine dice, grind or process your sun-dried tomatoes into a nice paste; add this to the simmering good stuff. Let the mix cook for 1 hour, covered.

Remove sauce from heat, and blend thoroughly, (Blender, food processor, or my personal fave, a stick blender, AKA boat motor)

Return blended sauce to heat, add 4 ounces of butter, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes more.

Chiffenade your basil leaves, and grate some fresh Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago cheese.

Serve over angel hair pasta, garnished with fresh basil and cheese.

OK, how about a super simple, cool summer tomato dish?

Tomato – Avocado Salad

3 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, cored and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small bulb Shallot, minced
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine tomato, avocado and shallot, mix gently in a non-reactive bowl. Add roughly 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve straight up, or with toasted Italian or French bread, lightly brushed with a garlic clove.

How about another, since we’re on a string of 100+ degree days down here? This is my take on an Spanish favorite:

Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Tomato Soup)

2 pounds tomatoes, roasted, peeled, and cored
1 clove of garlic
½ Lemon Cucumber, peeled and cored
½ red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, roasted and peeled
½ cup day old bread, diced ¼”
¼ cup Olive Oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

To roast your tomatoes and peppers, cut them in half, brush lightly with olive oil and put them on your grill or under a broiler until the skins start to blacken; pull ‘em out and let ‘em cool before prepping further.

Put the whole shebang in a blender or food processor, (Or have at it with the boat motor) until everything is smoothly blended. Place in a non-reactive bowl or container and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt in the middle of a cup or bowl of soup, and a nice piece of bread to wipe it all up with!

And finally, tomato desert, you ask? Absolutely… Keep in mind, technically, tomatoes are fruit, not vegetables, and as such, they make fine deserts indeed!

Tomato Granita

2 pounds tomatoes of your choice, (Naturally, go for something nice and sweet!)
1.5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, (FRESH, NOT bottled!)
¼ cup fresh cilantro
salt
Optional: For a version with zing, add a moderately hot chile of your choice, blanched, peeled and veined.

Blanch all your ‘maters, then peel ‘em and put everything into a blender, food processor, or have at ‘em with the boat motor.

After blending, run the mixture through a chinoise or strainer, (A chinoise, the conical metal strainer, is really perfect for this kind of thing and super handy for canning and preserving; get one.)

Pour your strained mixture into a glass baking dish big enough to allow the layer to be roughly ½” thick or so.

Set the dish on your freezer for around an hour, or until the mix looks frozen around the edges. Use a fork or small spatula to scrape all the icy part into the middle of the dish, then let it freeze some more. Keep repeating this cycle about every half hour or so until everything is frozen evenly.

Serve in a martini glass with a little sprig of mint.

You can easily prepare Granita the day before as well!

So, preserving, eh?

Well, here again, my favorites are canning and drying.

As for canning, while traditionally tomatoes are done via the hot water method due to their relatively high acidity, I think that pressure canning yields better and more intense flavor; also, if you’re canning tomato-based sauce, you really do need to pressure can for your safety.

There are lots of canned tomato recipes out there, so I won’t go into specifics about that, other than to say that you should certainly can tomatoes in your favorite styles; if you like the Pomarola, make a bunch and can it. I like to use several versions of tomatoes when I cook; sometimes I want whole, sometimes crushed, sometimes sauce, sometimes puree – If that’s the case for you, too, then can all your favorite versions and, this winter, enjoy a level of taste and quality no store will ever, ever touch!

Drying:

Sun dried tomatoes are a huge treat; nothing but the sun adds such intense flavor in them!

Slice your favorites ¼” thick and lay them out to dry, (Or use a dehydrator, if you must.) Dried tomato flake is a wonderful thing to have in your spice cabinet, so cut those slices into roughly ¾” pieces and dry those – You can add them to soups, stews, eggs, all kinds of things. Quarter or half your favorite variety, dry them and then preserve those in olive oil; they’re unbelievable on pizza, or with smoked chicken, basil and mozzarella cheese in a grilled sandwich. Finally, put dried tomatoes into a coffee grinder, (Do you have one of these just for spice? NO? GET ONE!! You can find used grinders for a couple of bucks at a second hand place; I keep two around just for spices – We all know that spice lasts longer and tastes better if kept whole; store yours this way and grind what you need when you need it; you get better flavor, longer lasting spice, and lower cost to boot.) Anyway, back to those tomatoes…. Grind them into powder, and you can add that to soup, stew, or to biscuit, pasta, pizza or tortilla dough for a fantastic flavor and a very cool look too!

This weeks other mail bag question: “you wrote about not using table salt for canning, what about for cooking? I see a lot of salts out there, is there really any difference?”

Short answer; ye Gods, YES! Excellent question and thank you for not letting me gloss over this; let’s talk about salt and pepper, since they’re the main go-to seasonings.

One of the main things about good restaurant food, or great restaurant food versus yours, maybe, is the nature and quality of seasoning. Great chefs don’t need nor use 14 things in one dish; they use 1 to maybe 4 or 5 max. The idea of seasoning is to enhance flavor, not overcome or mask it. Salt is incredibly versatile and absolutely necessary in cooking as far as I am concerned, and pepper runs a close second.

Notice that even in relatively sweet dishes, like the roasted corn salsa we made a while back, there is salt; this is because it definitely enhances flavor when used properly, and by used properly, I mean not overused!

That said, what salt you use matters a great deal. Treat salt no differently than any other ingredient; in other words, would you settle for a lousy cut of beef or veggies that weren’t fresh as you can get ’em? No, of course not, so don’t settle for sub-par seasonings either! Plain ol’ table salt is crap – NO flavor, treated with iodine, and terrible for seasoning and cooking. The bottom line is, If I have to buy salt from the grocery, I get either untreated sea or Kosher salt and so should you; read your labels so you know what’s really in there! I use good quality salt from a known source with nothing but salt in it; (Even Morton Kosher salt has prussiate of soda in it as an anti-caking agent; I neither need nor want that in my food, frankly…).

OK, on to the second part of the question, regarding the varieties out there and whether they’re worth it or not: Short answer, you betcha! I just went and counted, and I have 11, count ’em 11 varieties of salt in my pantry, including; curing, kosher, a couple varieties of smoked, (Alder and Mesquite), sea salt, sel de mer, Janes, Utah Basin, Murray River Flake, Hawaiian, and Black. Each and every one has a completely unique flavor profile that lends itself to certain styles and genres of cooking. For me, it’s a requirement; you don’t probably need that many, but two or three really good salts will serve you well and make your food taste that much better.

Similarly, plain ol’ black I-don’t-have-a-clue-where-it’s-from-or-what-variety-it-is pepper is junk. Pepper is a great baseline spice to add a little bit of zing to a dish without getting overboard or exotic; to me, good pepper is a must-have in, once again, more than one variety. Malabar or Tellicherry are great black peppers, with genuine flavor and consistent quality. That said, green, red, and white pepper have completely unique tastes that will go better with some things than black does. Our every day pepper here is a hand blended mix of all those colors and adds a really nice note to food. Once again, don’t buy it from the store; they may have it, but for what they charge for a tiny jar, you can and should buy a pound of good stuff online.

We’ll get into broad seasonings later on, but for now, suffice it to say that most of what you can get from the average grocery is crap and not worth your money. For dependable quality, you either have to go local with someone you know and trust, or buy online. Butcher and Packer and World Spice are tremendous spice resources; the quality is the best you’ll find anywhere, and the prices are seriously good; check them both out.

¡Save The Chiles!

Out watering this morning, and I know, since our peppers are very happy, that yours are too! So time for some thoughts on chile preservation. If you get lots of chiles and peppers, (And if you can, you should, plain and simple), you need to think about preserving them. Here again, two time honored methods come into play; drying and canning.

Canning Chiles:

General Notes:
1. If you don’t have canning equipment, ask around, check Craigs list, etc; even in the 21st century, lots of folks have them and of those, most don’t use them!

2. When canning, use good quality cooking or canning salt ONLY, NEVER table salt; table salt is most often iodized and will turn your stuff black and make it taste funky!

3. Best canning vinegar is white, because it does the job and doesn’t add color; be careful with cider or balsamic or anything with color in it, unless you maybe want some, ahhh, unusual color results…

4. ALWAYS practice safe canning; follow sterilization routines to the letter and without fail, each and every time!

5. Always leave enough headspace in your canning jars; 1” for low acid foods like chiles, ½” for high acid fruits and tomatoes, ¼” for jams and jellies and whatnot.

When canning chiles, you have the option of pickling or not; that said, doing them up fresh is gonna require pressure canning capability. Let me say that again; if you choose not to, you MUST pressure can your chiles. Chiles are not a high-acid food, (Like tomatoes for instance), so there are many more opportunities for bacteria to grow in the canned product. If you like your chiles as they are and have the ability to pressure can, then DO, ‘cause this is the best way to preserve great chile taste long-term. If you want to add a little salt for taste ¼ tspn per pint is plenty.

You certainly can roast your chiles and can them that way as well, they are wonderful in cold weather favorites like enchiladas, soups, chili and lots of other things as well.

In all options for canning, pick your best, freshest chiles for the show. Discolored or bruised chiles will likely make mushy canned chiles, and nobody wants that…

Follow the guidelines for your pressure canner, but in general, fresh processed chiles need to reach an internal temp of 240º F and maintain a boil for at least 10 minutes below 1000 ft. in altitude, (Which I believe y’all are all a bit above); add another minute to the boil for each additional 1000 ft.

If you decide to pickle, I strongly recommend brining them overnight. This will help keep them crisp and to maintain their best color. A brine solution of 3 parts water to 1 part salt works well. I use a 5 gallon food-grade bucket and cover it tightly for the process. Make sure you rinse your chiles thoroughly before processing, (As in several times, until they neither feel, smell nor taste salty!)

Also, prick your chiles with a pin before canning, so they don’t collapse on ya.

Here’s a few of my fave variations on the theme for y’all:

Pickled Jalapenos

We LOVE Jalapenos; they are, in fact, our go-to chile here. We use ’em in eggs, salads, almost everything. Good ones have a mild bite and a fresh chile taste that lends it self well to many, many dishes.

1 lb of fresh jalapenos, whole, pricked

Have prepared the following:
¼ cup rough chopped onion
1 cinnamon stick, busted into pieces
2 tbspns mustard seed
2 tspns whole allspice
2 tbspns whole peppercorns
1 tspn whole clove
2 tspns dill seed
2 tspns whole coriander seed
2 tspns whole mace
6 – 8 whole bay leaves, busted into pieces
Optional: 1/4 to 1/2 clove peeled garlic per jar

(Note: This is a good, general purpose pickling mix for dang near anything!)

Prepare a brine solution as follows:
3 tbspns sugar
9 tbspns salt
2 pints water
2 pints 5% vinegar

Toss jalapenos in water at a rolling boil and blanch for a couple minutes, (See below on Blanching!)

Your chiles must be hot when you brine them, so take them right from the blanch and stuff them into jars – not too packed but not too loose; they will lose some volume during processing, so err to the side of full, but leave at least ¾” headroom in each jar.

Divide your pickling spice up by number of jars and spoon even amounts into each, (Just scale your recipe up or back as needed for more or less spice).

Bring the brine to a boil and then carefully pour it into each jar. You want to leave a good 1” of headspace in these jars, it’s very important!

Process for 12 minutes and then set out to cool. These are best if left for at least a month to get acquainted before eating.

Pickled California or Garden Mix

Prepare by cutting into roughly 1” to 2” pieces and chunks:
Cauliflower
Chiles of your choice, (Careful, remember heat guidelines!)
Carrots
Celery
Bell Peppers
Cucumber
Small garlic cloves, peeled and halved, (½ to 1 per jar)

Use pickling mix and process as shown above and go wild!

Drying Chiles:

Ever had killer Molé, that food of the Gods from south of the border? IN some of the legendary red and black Molés, say from Oaxaca, might have anywhere from 20 to over 40 ingredients, and you know what the real key to them is, the Corazon? Dried chiles, and that’s no lie. Ancho, Pasilla, Mulato, Chipotle, Guajillo, Costeño, all those famous and mysterious chile names; know what they are? Various forms of dried and sometimes smoked chiles, and that’s a fact. Ancho and Mulato are dried Poblanos, which y’all have, and Pasilla is a dried Chilaca: These three dried chiles are kind of the Big Three for Molés, and you can and should make them yourselves!

Drying chiles ain’t hard, but to get really good, consistent results that will last, taste, smell and look best, I really think you need a food dehydrator. Let’s face it; humidity isn’t something we can control outdoors, or inside all that well. In a pinch, you can use an oven, but it’s really too hot, even on warm. I know folks who have done homemade rigs using light bulbs, but I have safety concerns about that: Fortunately, dehydrators are cheap and also happen to be another thing that many folks have and few use; you should be able to snag a used one quite easily.

To simply dry chiles, set them out with plenty of air space all around and let them dry thoroughly and completely. We have an early rush of Tabasco peppers this year, so I dried a bunch the other day; the smell is outta this world!
To add smoke to dried chiles, I smoke them prior to drying, which you can do too. I have a smoker, of course, (That and a tiny rat dog are required for Texas residency, FYI), so I use that most often. I also have some very high quality smoke powder, made from nothing but water and wood smoke run through it, that I use when I don’t want to smoke, (Like now, when it’s 106 outside, fer instance). I’ll rub the chiles with a little olive oil and sprinkle or roll smoke powder on ‘em, and then dehydrate and there ya go!

Question o’ de Day: What is blanching and why do I care about it?

Great question! 😉

Blanching is the process of plunging stuff into boiling water, (And sometimes steam), very quickly, after which you pluck ‘em out and stuff ‘em under an ice water bath; yes, it is that simple!

The process of blanching is used for several reasons, most importantly that this simple little trick enhances flavor, color and texture of veggies and fruit like nobody’s business: This IS one of those little restaurant tricks that pays big dividends and is super easy to do: Ever been at a nice place and noted how great their simple veggies taste and look and smell so much better than yours at home? Now you know a big reason why…

Blanching also makes peeling a bunch easier for things like tomatoes, peaches, or really annoying stuff like Fava Beans.

Blanching is considered a must-do step in good restaurants prior to serving veggies as a crudité, (Fancy French word for raw veggies served, sliced or whole, as a nice, simple meal course, with a little salt, butter, olive oil, vinaigrette, etc), or if they are to be used later for various dishes, or stored for any length of time.

Blanching and peeling is a great way to treat fruit and veggies that DON’T come from NG or KG, that maybe have been treated with various crap we don’t really wanna eat, capiche? Even if we are working with great veggies or fruit form the gang, blanching and peeling, (When called for), is the way to prepare stuff for freezing: Blanching kills bacteria and also slows down the enzymes that cause stuff to go bad. When blanching to freeze, put a little salt in the blanching water to help further preserve color, flavor and crispness.

Blanching also comes into play when prepping a bunch of things that are gonna go together in a dish, like for a stir fry or pasta dish. Blanching helps the constituents stay crisp and pretty, and don’t get mushed out or lost in other flavors once they’re combined.

Finally, taking the boiling a bit further, we can parboil stuff, (AKA, partially cooked), which speeds up and/or equalizes cooking time for disparate components in a dish; there’s another restaurant secret for ya. This is how stuff like carrots and diced onions come out ‘perfect’ and at the same level of doneness when cooked together.

Big Finale To Bring Everything Together:
Quite a few chiles freeze really well, so don’t discount this method for long-term storage; Every year down here, we get Hatch chiles from New Mexico about this time of year. I split mine between canning, drying and freezing, with the majority roasted. They are the core of winter chile sauces for me, and the frozen ones lend themselves perfectly to a quick menu selection.

While with the roasted chiles, I prefer to leave the skins on for flavor and remove them after thawing, for plain ol’ chiles, you’re best plan is to blanch ’em, skin ’em and freeze away. Here again, glass is way better than plastic!

NGKG Chef Q & A

Well, I have made an effort to encourage questions, ‘cause I really do want them, so I sure am not gonna pass any up!

PLEASE DO ask questions, comments, offer suggestions, etc! At the bottom of each post in the blog, you’ll see a little bar that separates the post from the last one; kinda in the middle of that there’s a little line that reads ‘comments’; just click on that to ask a question, make a point or comment, etc: A new window will pop up and you can enter your question there. It may ask if you want to follow the blog and the answer is, of course you do! Following the blog means you get notified when new posts are up, etc.

You can also email me; ebena at sbcglobal dot net, (Do that up in typical email format; I just spelled it out here to avoid spam mail…) OK, so down the river!

Got an email that reads “I keep seeing you use the term “Non-reactive pan” or bowl. What exactly does that mean and why do I care?”

That’s a great question, (And a great reminder not to throw cook-speak around too much, Eben!)

A non-reactive bowl or pan is simply one made of stuff that food won’t react with chemically: Aluminum, copper, brass, cast iron, and plastic should all be considered potentially reactive. At issue isn’t the pan or bowl itself so much as it is what you’re putting inside of them: When cooking with high acid foods, like citrus, tomatoes, vinegar and the like, those foods can react with pans and bowls and leave an off taste in your mouth. There is also some discussion to the effect that aluminum, non-stick, and plastic containers can in fact present health hazards simply by their use, so let’s take a look at that stuff.

When high acid foods are cooked in aluminum, certain aluminum salts can form, and there is some evidence that these salts can lead to dementia and impaired vision; in any case, we don’t want to be ingesting them if we can avoid it, right?

Likewise, food wrapped in plastic or placed in plastic containers has potential problems. Fatty foods like meat and cheese can promote the leaching of diethylhexyl adipate from such films and containers; you may have gotten an email to that effect from a well meaning friend. While the FDA claims that the amount of this chemical we’re exposed to is within safe parameters, I say unto you again, is this really something we want in our food and bodies?
Long and drawn out answer; no.

Quick and dirty nonstick Q & A; is nonstick OK for the kitchen? Answer; if you’re really getting health and environment conscious, no. The most commonly used non stick coating is PTFE, the exact same stuff you find in plumber’s tape; do we really wanna eat that? No. The stuff is applied as fluorocarbon layers to pans; remember the ozone layer? Heating nonstick pans can breakdown flouropolymers into such wonderful things as:
Triflouroacetate, (Harms plants and takes decades to break down)
Polyflourocarboxylic acids, (Removed from Scotchguard ‘cause it’s bad for us).
CFCs, (Ozone layer again).

‘Nuff said? Yeah, I think so…
Do yourself and your world a favor and stick to stainless steel and cast iron cookware, glass and stainless bowls, and glass storage containers. Your body and the environment will thank you, big time!

OK, next question:
“I love the blog, but I can cook too! Can I submit recipes and suggestions?”

Answer: YES, and please do! Sharing and learning is what this is all about! We ain’t the end all to be all of food, just one resource among many, so bring it on!